WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top adviser to President Biden on the coronavirus pandemic, said he didn’t believe that the coronavirus originated in a Chinese laboratory for studying pathogens, appearing to contradict controversial remarks made earlier in the day by the former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield.
Speaking on CNN just hours before the White House coronavirus task force was set to brief members of the press, Redfield — who served as CDC director during the Trump administration — reignited a debate that has continued more or less since the pandemic began: Where did the virus known as SARS-CoV-2 come from?
Not from an animal species, Redfield offered, arguing that its high level of human transmissibility suggested some level of human involvement, if not necessarily intention. “I do not believe this somehow came from a bat to a human,” he said, as that would not have given the virus an opportunity to almost instantaneously become “one of the most infectious viruses that we know in humanity for human-to-human transmission.”
Instead, he said, the virus “escaped” from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a laboratory that has been the subject of both legitimate scrutiny and baseless conspiracy theories.
Biden has tried to frame China as a formidable foe but not as an existential threat. Continued calls to press Beijing on the source of the coronavirus could complicate that difficult balance. The issue is particularly loaded because then-President Donald Trump framed the pandemic in starkly racial terms, with references to the “China virus” and the “kung flu.” Many believe that such rhetoric has contributed to recent attacks against Asian Americans.
During the White House coronavirus task force press briefing, Fauci said the virus likely developed its transmissibility in late 2019, before epidemiologists became aware of its existence.
“This virus was actually circulating in China, likely in Wuhan, for a month or more before they were clinically recognized at the end of December 2019,” Fauci said. “If that were the case, the virus clearly could have adapted itself to a greater efficiency of transmissibility over that period of time.”
Fauci got his start as a government public health official just as the HIV/AIDS epidemic was taking hold in the United States. The origins of that disease were also fiercely debated.
“Dr. Redfield was mentioning that he was giving an opinion as to a possibility. But again, there are other alternatives that most people hold by,” Fauci added, making clear that he did not think highly of the laboratory hypothesis.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who succeeded Redfield as the director of the CDC, said she was looking forward to reviewing a forthcoming report from the World Health Organization on the origins of the coronavirus. She appeared less concerned with the etiology of the virus than with the proliferation of new variants, which could prolong the pandemic into the summer, even as millions of Americans are being inoculated daily.
Asked about Redfield’s comments later on Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki also said that the administration would look closely at the WHO report. In response to another question, she criticized China for “horrific human rights abuses.”
Indeed, Redfield’s incendiary assertion comes at a time when relations between China and the U.S. appear to be growing increasingly acrimonious. Top officials in the Biden administration have accused Beijing of being less than forthcoming in allowing investigators to understand the critical early stages of the outbreak, when the coronavirus could have perhaps been stopped from becoming a global pandemic.
The United States also has concerns with China when it comes to human rights, territorial claims, intellectual property and trade. A Pew poll earlier this month found many Americans viewing China with hostility, with a majority going so far as to advocate limits on Chinese students’ ability to attend American universities. Some Republicans even want to investigate Chinese-U.S. “sister cities,” a seemingly innocuous partnership some have claimed is being used as a platform for spying and influence by Beijing.
At the same time, Asian Americans have faced attacks in the United States, including a deadly shooting in Atlanta. A recent USA Today/Ipsos poll found that a quarter of Americans believe that China is responsible for the virus. "China released it, so the buck has to stop there," an Arizona woman told pollsters.
Dr. Leana Wen, the former Baltimore health commissioner, criticized the former CDC chief on Twitter. “I hope Redfield explains his evidence, as this speculation runs the risk of fueling anti-Asian sentiment,” she wrote.
The WHO has made clear that its forthcoming report will not point to the Wuhan laboratory as a source of the virus. And while U.S. officials have downplayed the laboratory hypothesis, they have also signaled they are frustrated with China’s data sharing.
In keeping with his preference for global alliances, Biden has indicated that his administration would be a leading WHO member once again. But that doesn’t mean that all concerns about the scope of the WHO’s work in China have vanished with the change in presidential administrations.
“Re-engaging the WHO also means holding it to the highest standards,” said Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, last month. “We have deep concerns about the way in which the early findings of the COVID-19 investigation were communicated and questions about the process used to reach them.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made much the same point. “China is falling far short of the mark when it comes to providing the information necessary to the international community,” Blinken said last month in a television interview.
Most virologists believe that the virus is, in fact, zoonotic, meaning that it jumped from an animal species to humans. As continued deforestation has increased the contact between wildlife and humans, zoonotic diseases are expected to become more common.
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